Altman, Robert (Vol. 116)
Robert Altman 1925–2006
The following entry presents an overview of Altman's career through 1996. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 16.
Robert Altman enjoyed both critical acclaim and commercial success with his film M∗A∗S∗H in 1970, but he is known more for his cult following than for his box office smashes. His signature techniques, including multiple voices, meandering plots, and obscure themes, have garnered him critical acclaim for his innovation, but have prevented him from gaining overwhelming popular success.
Altman was born February 20, 1925, in Kansas City, Missouri, to German immigrant parents. He attended several schools in the Kansas City area, including Wentworth Military Academy, before entering the Air Force to become a co-pilot of B-24 bombers. In the 1940s and 1950s Altman wrote several B-movie screenplays in Los Angeles and then returned to Kansas City to direct documentaries. In the late 1950s Altman tried his luck in Hollywood once again, this time in television. For the rest of the 1950s and much of the 1960s, Altman wrote, produced, or directed episodes of popular shows such as Bonanza, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and U. S. Marshall. His first feature film was Countdown (1968), but he was not allowed final editing decisions on the film. Although many consider Countdown a fine science fiction film, Altman disavows the movie and has insisted on complete artistic control of his subsequent projects. Altman was chosen to direct his breakthrough feature, M∗A∗S∗H (1970) after several (according to some reports, as many as fifteen) directors turned the project down. After M∗A∗S∗H, Altman made a series of offbeat films that received mixed critical reception and were by no means commercial successes. Altman's Nashville (1975) brought the auteur back into Hollywood's good graces for a time, garnering Altman the New York Film Critics Circle awards for best film and best director, as well as multiple Academy Award nominations. Altman experienced a third resurgence in 1992 with The Player, another commerical and critical success for which Altman was again nominated for multiple Academy Awards.
M∗A∗S∗H is an anti-war film centered on a group of zany army doctors who, though compassionate and skilled surgeons, survive the war through alcohol and humor. Set during the Korean War but released during the Vietnam War, the black comedy contains many of the elements typical of Altman's other films, including improvised lines and scenes, overlapping dialogue and sound effects, light and irreverent humor, no standard plot, and a moving camera which records from a distance. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) is a western and love story that subverts many of the conventions of each. In The Long Goodbye (1973), based on the Raymond Chandler novel, Altman tackles the detective genre and one of its mythical heroes, the detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is out of place in his 1970s surroundings, enabling Altman to make a social commentary on the times. Nashville (1975) analyzes the nature of power and opportunism. The story revolves around a cast of 24 characters, mostly singers, aspiring stars, and politicians in the capital of country music. Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976) criticizes commercialism, opportunism, and the making of a celebrity. The title itself sets up a dialectic between two versions of history, and the film makes it difficult to discern historical fiction and historical reality. Vincent and Theo (1990) is Altman's only biographical film. Altman takes the unusual approach of making Vincent Van Gogh's art peripheral to the main plot. Instead, the film traces Van Gogh's relationship with his brother Theo and the pain he suffered in his life. The Player (1992) is a satiric look at the Hollywood studio system and the role writers play in the system. Short Cuts (1993) is another sweeping film with multiple plot lines and a large cast of characters. The film is based on slice-of-life stories by Raymond Carver. Ready to Wear (1994) follows another multitude of characters, this time through the fashion world. The film analyzes many topics, including the nature of womanhood, relationships in American society, and the human condition.
Much disagreement surrounds the critical discussions of many of Altman's films. M∗A∗S∗H was Altman's breakout film, becoming both a critical and popular success. Many of the techniques which made M∗A∗S∗H popular, however, left critics and audiences uneasy in his subsequent films. Many reviewers criticize Altman's use of sound and overlapping dialogue; others assert that the technique lends a sense of reality to his films. Altman's The Long Goodbye created a storm of criticism, but several reviewers attribute this to Altman's alteration of the end of the Raymond Chandler novel, which made Marlowe devotees uncomfortable. Nashville was another critical and popular success for Altman, but his style still drew complaints. Some critics felt that despite Altman's finesse in juggling multiple story lines, Nashville's separate plots lacked substance individually. Most reviewers agree that plot is not the central element in Altman's work. Jonathan Baumbach asserted that "Altman generates tension in his film not through plot, which seems to exist as an afterthought …, but through movement and image." Despite individual criticisms of some of his techniques, many reviewers appreciate Altman's unique and innovative style. While he has failed to achieve consistent box office success, many critics and fans describe him as one of the best directors of his generation. Todd Boyd asserts that, "Altman remains one of the few independent voices in a sea of repetitive Hollywood mediocrity."
The Delinquents [writer and director] (screenplay) 1955
The James Dean Story [writer and director] (documentary) 1957
Nightmare in Chicago [director] (film) 1967
Countdown [director] (documentary) 1968
That Cold Day in the Park [director] (film) 1969
M∗A∗S∗H [director; adapted from the novel by Richard Hooker] (screenplay) 1970
Brewster McCloud [writer and director] (screenplay) 1970
McCabe and Mrs. Miller [with Brian McKay; writer and director] (screenplay) 1971
Images [writer and director] (screenplay) 1972
The Long Goodbye [director; adapted from the novel by Raymond Chandler] (screenplay)...
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SOURCE: "Show-Offs," in Partisan Review, Vol. XLI, No. 2, 1974, pp. 273-74.
[In the following mixed review, Baumbach complains that, "what's finally wrong with The Long Goodbye is that for all its artistic pretensions, all of them, the film is not quite serious, not serious enough to carry the freight of its pretensions."]
Seeing movies, writing about them is a more subjective business than the authoritative voice of most reviews admits. One runs into a good deal of self-deception and cant among reviewers who try to make the fleeting reality on the screen seem unequivocal. There is so much fantasy invested in moviegoing that movie reviews tend to tell us...
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SOURCE: "Altman: The Empty Staircase and the Chinese Princess," in Film Comment, Vol. 10, No. 5, September-October, 1974, pp. 10-17.
[In the following essay, Dempsey discusses pivotal scenes in Altman's Thieves Like Us and McCabe and Mrs. Miller which cause the films to fall short of greatness.]
Two moments in Robert Altman's movies may hold the key to their true nature. In one, the conclusion of Thieves Like Us, travellers in a railroad station climb a staircase to a train. The film goes into slow motion, and Father Coughlin gives a populist speech on the sound track. Finally, the people disappear, leaving only the stairs. In the other, an episode...
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SOURCE: "The Delinquents (Robert Altman) (1974)," in Kings of the Bs: Working Within the Hollywood System, edited by Todd McCarthy and Charles Flynn, E. P. Dutton and Co., Inc., 1975, pp. 215-19.
[In the following review, McCarthy states that, "Decidedly a minor work by a major artist," The Delinquents proves that Altman can tell a straightforward story without stylistic mannerisms.]
A reasonable number of people must be aware that Robert Altman directed films before M∗A∗S∗H, but most would probably be hard pressed to come up with many titles. Some may have seen That Cold Day in the Park and a few watchful airplane passengers and...
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SOURCE: "Trashville," in Commentary, Vol. 60, No. 3, September, 1975, pp. 72-5.
[In the following essay, which was reprinted in Movie Plus One, Horizon Press, 1982, Pechter traces Altman's portrayal of America in Nashville.]
Why make a film about—and full of—country music, if you don't like it? I ask this not as any devotee of country music myself, well over nine-tenths of what I've heard of it striking me as a pile of lachrymose slop. But any film crammed with some 25 country-music original numbers ought, statistically, to hit on one that's better than pathetic. Even a nonentity like W. W. and the Dixie Dancekings (whose principal characters are...
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SOURCE: "A Merging of Mythologies," in Midstream, Vol. XXI, No. 10, December. 1975, pp. 56-9.
[In the following excerpt, Sultanik compares the view of America presented by Altman in Nashville to that presented by E. L. Doctorow in Ragtime.]
It comes as no surprise, amidst the festivities kicking off the celebration of our bicentennial, that our cultural gurus have focused on two works of art as the definitive summing-up of the way we were and what we are about today.
Though most important books and movies are appreciated only by highbrows and aesthetes who perceive motifs that forever remain obscure to the big public, E. L. Doctorow's...
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SOURCE: "Altman,Chabrol, and Ray," in Commentary, Vol. 62, No. 4, October, 1976, pp. 75-8.
[In the following excerpt, which was reprinted as "Buffalo Bob and an Indian," in Movie Plus One, Horizon Press, 1982, Pechter discusses the ways in which Airman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson is similar to his McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and he enumerates the ways in which the former film falls short of the latter.]
There's a sense in which, had Robert Altman's new film been better, I probably would have liked it less. Nashville was "better": it dumped a truckload of city-slicker's scorn for "down-home" America at our...
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SOURCE: "Floating," in Film Comment, Vol. 13, No. 4, July-August, 1977, pp. 55-7.
[In the following essay, Greenspun asserts that, "3 Women ranks with the best Altman, though it has the pretensions of some of the worst—Brewster McCloud, Images—and it divides, as just about everyone has noticed, between a wonderful first half and a highly problematic second."]
Quite by accident, the day I last saw 3 Women I also screened John Ford's 7 Women and the recent Looking Up. For the neatness of this introduction, and for lots of other reasons, I could have wished my third film had been, say, Four Daughters, or at least Two Gals...
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SOURCE: "Wish and Power: Recent Altman," in Chicago Review, Vol. 30, No. 1, Summer, 1978, pp. 34-51.
[In the following essay, Di Piero discusses Altman's Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson, and 3 Women, and asserts that, "His career may prove eventually to be the most cogent, and tenacious, of any America director."]
Public controversy contaminates perceptions, and sudden notoriety often smudges the profile of a newly famous thing. In the past several years Robert Altman, a latecomer in American filmmaking, has become the most conspicuous victim of public misperception. Although his films have inspired lively...
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SOURCE: "Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson: A Self-Portrait in Celluloid," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 13, No. 1, Summer, 1979, pp. 17-25.
[In the following essay, Bernstein analyzes how Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson examines the film medium itself including the genre of the western and the making of a superstar.]
In the last decade there has been a proliferation of films which are reflexive; that is which examine the medium in terms of film making itself or the impact of film on society. Some do it directly, like Francois Truffaut's Day for Night, while...
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SOURCE: "An Interview with Robert Altman," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 44-55.
[In the following interview, Altman discusses the course of his career and his critical reputation.]
In the Fall of 1982, film director Robert Altman visited the University of Michigan as Howard R. Marsh Professor of Journalism in the Department of Communication. He gave seminars on filmmaking, participated in workshops, and directed a stage production of Igor Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress for the School of Music. Frank Beaver, Professor of Communication at the University of Michigan, interviewed Altman for MQR.
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SOURCE: "Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller as a Classic Western," in New Orleans Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 79-86.
[In the following essay, Merrill analyzes Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller as a classic western, instead of its typical depiction as an anti-western.]
My title must seem an oddity, for Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller is almost always taken to be an "anti-western," that is, a film largely devoted to severe satire, even parody, of the classical westerns. Viewed in this fashion, McCabe and Mrs. Miller will almost inevitably seem a minor, somewhat quirky example of what other filmmakers were doing in the late...
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SOURCE: "Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye: Marlowe in the Me Decade," in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 25, No. 2, Fall, 1991, pp. 87-90.
[In the following essay, Ferncase discusses Altman's retelling of the story of Philip Marlowe in his The Long Goodbye.]
In the popular culture, few artifacts are guarded with the kind of reverence that is commonly reserved for old movies. Defenders of Hollywood's silver screen legacy are frequently vociferous over perceived indignities to which the films are submitted. A figure no less than Martin Scorsese has raged over the fugitive dyes in Eastmancolor prints (which reduced hundreds of 1950s films to faded ghosts of their...
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SOURCE: "Robert Altman: After 35 Years, Still the 'Action Painter' of American Cinema," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1, 1992, pp. 36-42.
[In the following essay, Tibbetts discusses Altman's relationship to Kansas City, the course of his career, and his films through Vincent and Theo.]
"They used to lock me up for getting into trouble in this town," quipped filmmaker Robert Altman as he accepted the Key to Kansas City from Mayor Richard Berkeley. "They used to throw away the key. Now, they're giving me one!"
Altman lived in his native Kansas City, MO, for his first nineteen years. As a boy he raised quite a ruckus, as he puts it;...
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SOURCE: "Reimagining Raymond Carver on Film: A Talk with Robert Altman and Tess Gallagher," in The New York Times Book Review, September 12, 1993, pp. 3, 41-2.
[In the following interview, which took place in July, 1993, Altman and Gallagher discuss the adaptation of Raymond Carver's short stories in Altman's film Short Cuts.]
Raymond Carver, who died all too early—at 50—of lung cancer in 1988, left a remarkable legacy of 11 volumes of short stories and poems, among them Where I'm Calling From, Cathedral, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and Where Water Comes Together With Other Water. It is a body of work...
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SOURCE: "The Role of the Writer in The Player: Novel and Film," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1994, pp. 11-5.
[In the following essay, Sugg traces the role of the writer in Altman's The Player as compared to his role in the novel of the same name.]
Though the novel The Player was written first, the film precedes the novel in most of the audience's consciousness, for few who see the film will have read the novel. So let's consider how the writer is presented in the film, and how our understanding of these changes from novel to film helps us see more clearly Robert Altman's ultimate purposes and their achievement in the film. Three...
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SOURCE: "In the Time of Earthquakes," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 4, No. 3, March, 1994, pp. 8-11.
[In the following essay, Romney discusses the daredevil nature of Altman's career, including his approach to Short Cuts.]
The last word spoken in Robert Altman's film Short Cuts is "lemonade". We hear it as the camera tracks out over a briefly shaken Los Angeles, as two partying couples toast to survival in the face of a minor apocalypse. As so often happens with Altman, who is famous for his habit of scrambling soundtracks to the limit of comprehensibility, the word is audible but not entirely noticeable, certainly not impressing itself on you as central to the...
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SOURCE: "Why the Birthday Party Didn't Happen," in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 5, March 10, 1994, p. 19.
[In the following review, Wood shows how the stories Altman presents in Short Cuts differ from the Raymond Carver stories on which the film is based.]
Robert Altman's Short Cuts is a long, loose-looking movie, but the looseness is an effect, carefully worked for. Plenty of themes recur throughout—insecurity, chance, rage, damage, the long, bruising war between men and women—and although there are fourteen or fifteen stories here (based on, extrapolated from ten stories by Raymond Carver—the handouts and the introduction solemnly say nine...
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SOURCE: "A Fishy Lot, Mankind," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4745, March 11, 1994, p. 21.
[In the following review, Shone discusses the relationship between Raymond Carver's short stories and Altman's adaptation of them in his film Short Cuts, and asserts that "the union of writer and director is occasionally rocky, may in some cases have needed a little more guidance, but it has a weathered solidity."]
There is a moment in the first half-hour of Short Cuts, Robert Altman's adaptation of Raymond Carver's short stories, when a man on a fishing trip with his buddies, having set up camp by a river, flips down the hinged shades of his glasses with a...
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SOURCE: "A Lion's Gate: The Cinema According to Robert Altman," in Film Comment, Vol. 30, No. 2, March-April, 1994, pp. 20-1, 24, 26, 28.
[In the following essay, Murphy discusses some prevailing images from Altman's films.]
In Provence, Vincent Van Gogh centers his easel in a field of glorious sunflowers. Robert Altman's camera darts about frantically, catching closeups of golden novas and overviews of entire restless constellations. Neither the director nor the painter can settle on framespace; like some sorcerer's apprentice, nature has generated a vertiginous profusion of forms, each potentially unique flower a momentary stop in a grid of pulsing yellow light....
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SOURCE: A review of Ready to Wear (Prêt-à-Porter), in Film Quarterly, Vol. 48, No. 4, Summer, 1995, pp. 35-8.
[In the following review, Hilferty states that, "Less about fab fabric than the tenuous fabric of society, Ready to Wear is an elaborate striptease of the human condition."]
First, the facts.
Robert Altman's new film is not a "behind-the-scenes" look at the fashion world. Nor is it a particularly fashionable treatment of that world. Nor is it a conventional narrative complete with audience-identification protagonist and tidy plot. Nor is it much like Nashville, despite its many characters and multiple vignettes....
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SOURCE: A review of Kansas City, in Sight and Sound, Vol. 6, No. 12, December, 1996, pp. 49-50.
[In the following excerpt, Boyd calls Altman's Kansas City "aimless film-making."]
"Kansas City here I come!" These are the words of Big Joe Turner's classic rhythm and blues song 'Going to Kansas City', and it's also the mission of film-making elder statesman Robert Altman in this homage to his hometown. Set in a colourful 30s world, in which the city is an oasis for the political party bosses, gangsters and jazz musicians who ran the show, Kansas City is trademark Altman, a series of interconnected episodes all linked to one central theme: the uses and...
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SOURCE: "Kansas City, Kansas City, Kansas City, Kansas City," in Film Comment, Vol. 33, No. 2, March-April, 1997, pp. 68, 70-1.
[In the following review, Combs discusses the lack of personal references in Altman's films, noting the exception of Kansas City, which is set in Altman's home town.]
In his biography of Robert Altman, Jumping Off the Cliff. Patrick McGilligan charts some lost territory in the Altman story—lost in the sense that there are whole areas of the director's life that haven't shown up in his work. Altman was born in Kansas City. Missouri, in 1925, of German immigrant stock. The family name was originally Altmann, the loss of the...
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Bush, Lyall. Review of Short Cuts: The Screenplay. Studies in Short Fiction 33, No. 1 (Winter 1996): 145-48.
Briefly discusses how the script of Short Cuts by Altman and Frank Barhydt differs from the short stories by Raymond Carver.
Dick, Bernard F. "Film Editing." In his Anatomy of Film, pp. 48-51. St. Martin's Press, 1978.
Discusses the editing in Altman's Nashville.
Edgerton, Gary. "Capra and Altman: Mythmaker and Mythologist." Literature Film Quarterly XI, No. 1 (1983): 28-35.
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Altman, Robert (Vol. 16)
Robert Altman 1925–2006
With the release of M∗A∗S∗H in 1970, Altman won critical praise for his innovation and his artistry. However, the very techniques which brought him this acclaim, such as obscure themes and meandering plot lines, have also kept his films from wide audience appeal.
For ten years Altman directed, produced, and wrote for television, working on episodes for such popular series as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Bonanza. In 1967 he directed a film called Countdown, starring a relatively unknown actor named James Caan. Even though he was not allowed final editing decisions on the film (and for this reason has subsequently disavowed it), it is generally considered far better than most of the other science fiction films of that era. After he directed That Cold Day in the Park, which also drew lukewarm notices from the critics, producer Otto Preminger asked him to direct M∗A∗S∗H. According to some reports, however, Altman was chosen after fifteen other directors declined the offer. The popularity of M∗A∗S∗H, an anti-war film brimming with satirical one-liners and dedicated but zany army doctors, was Altman's means to artistic and financial freedom. His later films have been praised for the qualities that are typically Altman: overlapping dialogue and sound effects, light humor, an iconoclastic view of traditions, and a camera which, moving constantly and recording from a distance, keeps the viewer somewhat emotionally remote from the characters.
Altman's popularity with actors is largely because of the artistic freedom he allows them. Much of the dialogue is improvised, either in rehearsals or during final shooting. In Nashville his actors and actresses wrote the songs they were to perform. It may be this personal attitude towards the actors, or his multitextured sound tracks, or his off-balance characters, or his iconoclastic attitude which has made Altman famous. For whatever reason, he has the admiration of film critics. As Andrew Sarris has written: "[Altman is] considered by many critics to be the quintessential director of the '70s." Yet although he speaks eloquently of the decade to the critics, the meagerness of his public following has always cast a shadow on that distinction. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)
[The James Dean Story] breaks new ground by its purely documentary approach; the way with show-business life-stories has always previously been to avoid using the least fragment of authentic material…. Apart from a few staged details (most of them unsuccessful) all the material in this film is documentary—stills of Dean at various stages of his life, shots of the places in which he lived, interviews with the people who knew him and worked with him, a tape recording he made of a conversation with his family, a screen-test for East of Eden. The weakness of the film arises from the attempt to spin out this material—enough for a good thirty-minute short—to feature-length. In its repetitive analysis of Dean's personality and problems, its overlong interviews and excessive use of stills, the film becomes from time to time tedious, and is forced into pretentious over-writing….
The film really convinces you that it is a serious attempt to probe the character of this extraordinary, talented and undoubtedly tormented young man, with his self-confessed longing for someone to love and for flamboyant success, his sense of isolation and of parental deprivation. If it rarely gets further than a lot of words, it is probably because Dean's real problems, socially and psychologically were at once too involved and too familiar for this sort of discussion.
David Robinson, "'The James Dean Story'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1957 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 27, No. 2, Autumn, 1957, p. 93.
Say one thing for "Countdown."… It makes the moon seem just as dull as Mother Earth.
[It] is simply stultifying. The bulk of it is a slack, cliché-ridden prelude to the climactic space ride, as we see the conditioning of three astronauts at a simulated Cape Kennedy. The lads bound home to their worried wives. "Hey there, give us a smile," is a sample of the dialogue. Finally, one of the men buckles in and roars aloft, thanks to some documentary footage, as the music rumbles ominously and the rest of the cast hang around a winking control board.
By then slow death has already set in, since Robert Altman's direction is almost as listless as the acting of a dreary cast.
Howard Thompson, "'Countdown'," in The New York Times (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 2, 1968, p. 57.
Obscure dramas, laden with opaque relationships, carefully developed (yet still incomprehensible) motifs, latent themes, and inexplicable deeds, seem to be the newest cinematic fad…. The latest and by far the worst specimen is That Cold Day in the Park…. Altman's direction runs to fancy reflection shots, blurry transitions, and ponderous camera movement. He strains to be ornate but cannot relate his devices to his heroine's subjectivity. Whereas Losey gave us uneasy comedy, Clouzot compassionate dissection, and Chabrol cool elegance, Altman supplies logy murkraking…. [To] become a good director he must stop mistaking half-baked mannerisms for psychological profundity. It is one thing to stylize emotions or to seek metaphors, outlandish or otherwise, for their terrifying extremities; it is quite another to make freaks of your characters, as though loneliness were an exotic disease.
Michael Dempsey, "Short Notices: 'That Cold Day in the Park'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1969 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XXIII, No. 1, Fall, 1969, p. 56.
Mash (as I'll call [M∗A∗S∗H] for short) is a comedy at which you may very well do not just a double but a quadruple take…. (p. 38)
What makes Mash outstanding—and as something more than a wacky comedy—is the richness of its texture. The characters stroll, run, interweave among the tents of their unit; dust swirls around them; the camera pans and cuts to seemingly random details. Meanwhile, on the sound track, lines of dialogue overlap or are casually tossed away; the PA system continually breaks in with an odd announcement or the Japanese version of an American popular song. Many films these days impose quick cuts and overlapping dialogue on what are basically four-square, linear scripts, and thus produce an irritating effect of contrivance. Mash stands out because—with the exception of the fake suicide and Japanese sequences …—the incidents and dialogue in [Ring Lardner, Jr.'s] script are ideally suited to the dense, elliptical style with which Altman has put them on film. (p. 39)
The dialogue has an almost Proustian richness, with asides and fragmentary exchanges which may easily be missed at a first viewing. In a rapid throwaway line, the general refers to "the dark days before Pearl Harbor."…
With one or two exceptions, even the most broadly conceived characters are something more than stereotypes, and they create a sense of living their own lives...
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[In] their efforts to give [That Cold Day in the Park] what they believe to be contemporary audience appeal the makers have injected a vast dose of ill-assorted spices into what could have been a small, well-observed and unsentimentalised modern Marty. Included are the apparently essential ingredients of: nudity and sex, with a detailed examination at a birth control clinic, hints of incest, and prostitution; contemporary stock characters such as a draft dodger and hippie type drop-outs; and of course a pot smoking sequence. All these ingredients are in this context unnecessary embellishments which add little to the story and seem to have been included solely with an eye to the box office—a gesture...
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[If there's one moral that can safely be drawn from the succession of gags and incidents which provide M∗A∗S∗H's] sprawling narrative structure, it's that inflexible attitudes to war (chauvinistic, religious, bureaucratic or heroic) lead straight to the strait-jacket. (p. 161)
[Much of M∗A∗S∗H's] ironic tension derives from the contrast between the life-saving activity of the doctors and the destructive impulse of war. And this idea comes closer than most to being spelled out when two recalcitrant surgeons commandeer a Japanese military hospital to treat a local whore's baby: 'We stumbled on him. We didn't want him, but we couldn't back away from him.' But stronger though less explicit...
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Disconcertingly, after the tuneless rendering of the Star Spangled Banner that introduced Brewster McCloud, or the 'Tokyo Rose' transmissions that lent an insane kind of musical continuity to M∗A∗S∗H, it is Leonard Cohen's gentle ballad 'The Stranger' that both introduces and accompanies Robert Altman's latest film, McCabe and Mrs. Miller…. Disconcertingly but appropriately, to the point where one suspects Altman of extrapolating his scenario from the song rather than from the Edmund Naughton novel on which he and Brian McKay based their script. The film stubbornly defies analogies or easy pigeon-holing; but its mood is closer to that of Cohen's writing, with its transitions from obscenity...
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[What] is Altman's Brewster McCloud really about? The most obvious idea of the film is, of course, the fantasy of flying. As the Lecturer intones at the film's opening, "… the desire to fly has been ever-present in the mind of Man…. Was the dream to attain the ability to fly, or was the dream the freedom that true flight seemed to offer Man?" This question is the "score," or major leitmotif, of the film—the main theme upon which subsequent variations are orchestrated. From the opening sequence, throughout nearly every scene of the film to its finale, the ideas of flight, freedom, and constraint are developed, each with its own further variations. (p. 46)
Even granted [the]...
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The "spoof" … is only one form of American movies' film-consciousness. Somewhere this side of burlesque, connected to it, lies a distinctively American kind of film which also works with conventional film-styles but instead of deflating or inflating them tries to domesticate them. A stock plot and stock characters, even stock editing, are set forth with a wealth of gritty, sometimes squalid detail. At their best, these films set up a resonance between the ideal values of the convention and the homely ordinariness of their settings, properties, and dialogue…. The film convention thus enclosed is not shown up, debunked, burlesqued, or otherwise patronized: it is, if a word must be found,...
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McCabe and Mrs. Miller tells two interrelated but recognizably distinct stories, each bearing some relationship to … [a Western theme]. One is the story of the founding and growth of a frontier town. The second is that of McCabe's personal struggle for survival. These two parts of the film can be separated and discussed individually to show how Altman creates a work which uses the forms and themes of the conventional Western to systematically undercut the meanings traditionally associated with them. (pp. 269-70)
Until the mid-point of McCabe and Mrs. Miller Altman seems unconcerned with characterizing the end toward which the town is moving. Upon reflection it can be seen that the...
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[Images] is a modern variant of the old The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari ploy—the world as seen through a mad person's eyes. A classy schizo (Susannah York) duplicates herself, confuses the living with the dead, and can't tell her husband … from her lovers…. Miss York's madness has no roots, no nourishment; it is a matter of tinkling wind chimes, slivers of glass, windows, lenses, mirrors—"images." To be effective, the movie needs to draw us in to identify with Susannah York's hallucinations, but the cold shine of the surfaces doesn't do it…. This is a psychological thriller with no psychological content, so there's no suspense and the climax has no power. We know from the heroine's dashingly casual...
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[The] good guys of M∗A∗S∗H are not just a bunch of merry pranksters on a spree. They are best understood, I think, as Robin Hoods of rationalism, robbing from the rich stockpiles of madness controlled by the people who make (and manage) wars and doling it out in inoculating life-saving doses to the little guys caught up in the mess. They may be vicious in their persecution of the pompous, the petty and the paranoid, but they have a wonderful tenderness with outcasts and underlings and innocents. (pp. 284-85)
I have nothing but awed admiration for the way Altman has managed what is obviously a precarious project, one which could have gone all black on him. Or, more likely, have been...
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Conceivably, schizophrenia is a malady to which all Robert Altman's major characters have been prone. Their behaviour is of little interest analysed on the level of clues or symptoms, but compelling where it gives evidence of large and dangerous attempts to comprehend an irrational world through personal experience, of minds which escape from the trap of an insane situation by going promptly, appropriately, healthily insane. Broad Laingian concepts of madness as socially conditioned, as a valid experience of a given situation, are as closely worked out in Altman's tragicomedies as in the explicit psychiatric challenge of Family Life. And perhaps just as such a theory opposes the psychiatric treatment of...
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[There] is in Brewster McCloud and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, as well as in That Cold Day in the Park and M∗A∗S∗H, an underlying view of life and the world which, bypassing differences in subject matter, links these four films together as the work of a consistently serious and perceptive critic of certain conditions of contemporary society…. In the four films which are the subject of this study, Altman reserves his strongest disapproval and censure for those characters who, rather than maintaining their freedom of choice and action and a flexibility which permits them to alter their conduct according to the contingencies of a given situation, fall back on a structure, an established...
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[In his "'McCabe and Mrs. Miller': Robert Altman's Anti-Western" (see excerpt above), Gary Engle's] purpose is to praise [Altman] for having succeeded in producing the best Anti-western of a current outpouring which includes films such as Doc and Little Big Man. Engle does not elaborate on the worth of the Anti-western as a genre. He seems, rather, to assume that the reader will recognize the sense and value of having produced an anti-something. (p. 301)
[Engle is also] so preoccupied with making all the parts he mentions subordinate to the theme of social progress that he gives short shrift to the film's sensual immediacy and the impact it makes. For one thing, he neglects the...
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Philip Marlowe's back and the Seventies got him. Raymond Chandler's private eye, who survived threats from gangsters, gamblers, karate experts, cops, treacherous women, sadistic killers, has finally been defeated—by his own code and an age that doesn't need it. At least, so says Robert Altman in the latest Marlowe movie, The Long Goodbye….
Altman's ambition … was more sweeping than most of his audience realised, for Marlowe and his fellow shamuses, gumshoes and dicks are not the only target for the director's satire and anger. An entire genre of tightlipped, cynical but grimly romantic films is being criticised and parodied in The Long Goodbye. The plot and characters come, albeit...
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M∗A∗S∗H is a marvellously unstable comedy, a tough, funny, and sophisticated burlesque of military attitudes that is at the same time a tale of chivalry. It's a sick joke, but it's also generous and romantic—an erratic, episodic film, full of the pleasures of the unexpected. I think it's the closest an American movie has come to the kind of constantly surprising mixture in Shoot the Piano Player, though M∗A∗S∗H moves so fast that it's over before you have time to think of comparisons. (p. 92)
What holds the disparate elements of M∗A∗S∗H together in the precarious balance that is the movie's chief charm is a free-for-all, throwaway attitude. The picture...
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In other Altman films, there is always something that people can complain about; they ask, "What's that there for?" In Thieves Like Us, there's nothing to stumble over. It's a serenely simple film—contained and complete. You feel elated by the chasteness of the technique, and the film engages your senses and stays with you, like a single vision. It's beautiful right from the first, pearly-green long shot. Robert Altman finds a sureness of tone and never loses it; Thieves Like Us has the pensive, delicate romanticism of McCabe, but it isn't hesitant or precarious. It isn't a heady, whirling sideshow of a movie, like The Long Goodbye; it has perfect clarity. I wouldn't say that I respond to...
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[The close-up of the body at the end of Thieves Like Us] and the choice of the puddle are typical of the heaviness, the fundamentally mawkish fatalism with which Robert Altman has loaded this film. (p. 263)
[The book by Edward Anderson, on which the film is based,] does exactly what Altman's film does not do: it fixes its hero and heroine, Bowie and his girl Keechie, as creatures of circumstance, helpless and overpowered, grasping frantically for some truth—a paradox of the possibility of spirit in a drastically degraded moral landscape. We accept Bowie's values, given his conditioning, and accept the fate of Bowie and his girl as Zola-Dreiser specks of human grit bursting into flower for a...
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Altman is a director who works on the periphery: he can take a tired motif and move around it with such precision and freshness that the very form seems altered, expanded. He looks at his subjects sideways. His talent is an original one, but it's probably the most erratic now at work in American movies. The technique can jell to extraordinary effect (McCabe & Mrs. Miller) or get lost in muddle (The Long Goodbye) and occasionally even fall apart completely (Brewster McCloud), Thieves Like Us is one of Altman's more successful movies, coherent and rich in detail, and it plays without a hitch. It has the rhythm of a hazy Mississippi heat cut with flashes of rain and it's so firmly set in its...
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Like gambling itself, the impulses of Altman's characters [in "California Split"] seem a matter of luck or catastrophe, resting on choices ungoverned by rehearsal. The film gives us the sense that it is being improvised. We catch at events and personalities by the ends of threads. Everything seems to be going on in some tight corner of life that is off the direct route, inhabited by something musky, dangerous, and surprisingly poetic. The characters suffer the fierce aloneness that Altman identifies in American living. His film is an implacable and minatory one. It is sometimes very funny, in a mood of not caring whether you find it so or not…. Using the overlapping talk that has always been so potent in his movies,...
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[In Thieves Like Us] Altman re-creates the depression Thirties …, but despite the clothing, cars, buildings, the ubiquitous Coca-Cola bottles, and the 1930s radio programmes that Altman uses almost as a music track, he has not made just another 'evocation' film. Rather, by using the basic plot of the novel, he has made an alternative to [Nicholas Ray's film noir, They Live By Night, based on Edward Anderson's novel Thieves Like Us] in which the entrapment and destruction of innocents takes place in the open country, in the light instead of the dark, in a world that appears to be free and pure. Altman's distancing effect is therefore quite different from Ray's. They Live By Night is...
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Apart from their intrinsic quality (often very high indeed) Altman's films are interesting by virtue of their centrality to the development of the American cinema, their synthesis of contemporary tendencies. First, Altman is very conscious of his legacy; a number of his films are overtly retrospective, establishing their significance through their relation (half-homage, half-sardonic critique) to the Hollywood past….
Second, that awareness of the European cinema that marks one of the decisive differences between the American cinema of today and the Hollywood of the studio/star/genre system—the increase in artistic consciousness or self-consciousness and the rise of the director as the...
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[An assorted array of cranks] populate McCabe and The Long Goodbye, each riding on an autonomous wavelength that runs at an oblique angle to everyone else's. Consider, for instance, Harvey in California Split, an old friend whom Bill looks up in a paint store:
Harvey: Wait a minute! Don't tell anybody you came, I'm getting a flash. You see, I have a good amount of ESP. I'm blessed with it—my wife kids me about it—but you should catch it when I get these flashes. Let me see how close I can get to what's goin' on here. I get—I get that you're probably back with your old lady … an-n-n that you probably want to paint your garage door—perhaps even the...
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I have often hoped that the arts could be wonderfully useful in times of trouble. I have seen few examples of that. Nashville, however, fulfills my dream. It is a spiritual inventory of America, splendidly frank and honest.
The movie shows us a system of yearnings and rewards and punishments and physical objects which we have tacked together over the years….
Mr. Altman implies that our understanding of our curious civilization must come from ourselves. He has an actress portray a British documentary filmmaker on a visit to Nashville, fresh from Israel and darkest Africa. She confidently misinterprets all she sees. She has European brilliance and sophistication which, when...
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Paramount Pictures has, I suspect, done Robert Altman a grave disservice in not releasing his Nashville in some longer version…. From an eight-hour version to a six-hour one to be released in two parts, from a three-and-a-half- to its present two-and-a-half-hour version, the film kept shrinking with nothing reaching us except rumors of its decrease…. What has finally been vouchsafed us strikes me as highly interesting but ultimately insufficient….
In a sense, the film resembles Joyce's Ulysses: more or less interconnected, self-important but essentially humdrum lives strutting in a brief time span against the more important backdrop of an exceptionally raucous but second-rate...
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[Nashville is] a bloated, slapdash, simplistic effort, full of hollow attitudinizing about the Emptiness of American Life, an enterprise concocted of equal parts arrogance, condescension, and gall….
Some say you have to be stoned to see Altman's films properly, and I suspect they're right. The director's best movies (M∗A∗S∗H, California Split) and his worst (Thieves Like Us, Brewster McCloud) are marked by faintly narcotic stylistic similarities—muzzy, soft-edged camerawork, mumbly, overlapping dialogue tracks, limp, somnambulant pacing. Altman has drawn an analogy between how he makes a movie and the way jazzmen improvise. Journalists have bought this one, but the...
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A Robert Altman film is an experiment in audacity. Nashville is about American success—its costs, humiliations, and incredible spirit. Despite some failures in its storytelling, its ambience is tremendous. Altman has used the Mecca of country music to place his episodic film, and he shows what Americans have assumed as their values. In doing so he has created a movie that is provocative, comic, and gaudily melodramatic….
What is so exciting about Altman's movie-making is its many levels. Altman is one of the very few directors whose work deserves more than one experiencing. Mere viewing is not sufficient; in an Altman film, sound is supremely important. He has frustrated audiences...
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[It] is impossible to evaluate Altman's artistic decisions … without some sense of the vision which those decisions attempt to clarify. California Split is perhaps the most literal, explicit treatment to date of Altman's perennial concern: the relation between risk and belief.
In one way or another, all of Altman's movies are about the necessary risk involved in any attempt to enact an imaginative vision and, thereby, to extend the limits of the "real." The sliding fluidity of reality, its status as a reflector of consciousness, is probably most apparent in his "gothic thriller," Images. Altman's premise is that reality is a function of consciousness: if we feel imprisoned, an act of...
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One feels, and before Nashville it seemed a very grave limit, that Altman is in love with surfaces, that style is the essence of his work. And that if his dominant vision is that human life is absurd and fragmented, it is merely a shallow intuition, not deeply felt or thought through. Altman is hip and cynical, but his detachment is of that comfortable variety which often passes for iconoclasm and radicalism in American film. Altman's world is one where dreamers are destroyed (Brewster McCloud), friends betray and murder (The Long Goodbye), and every relationship is tainted by money (McCabe and Mrs Miller). But for all this sense of human corruption, his films gave off little genuine pain....
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The two hours' duration [of Buffalo Bill and the Indians or Sitting Bull's History Lesson] achieves nothing that could not have been done just as well in 90 minutes, and what sustains us much of the time is not so much lack of boredom as the assumption that so much artful quaintness must have something up its tasseled sleeve. In vain; this film makes me think that the center of Altman is made not of ideas, insights, visions, but of attitudes. And attitudes are not quite good enough. (p. 70)
There are two sides to almost everything: William F. Cody was also a Pony Express rider, Indian scout, hunter, and entrepreneur of remarkable skill, however little you and I may value these talents…....
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[My] biggest problem with Altman has arisen with his anti-genre derision in "The Long Good-bye" and "Buffalo Bill." I am not saying that Altman or any modern filmmaker should revere genre or even narrative. One may bypass it, but it is futile and unseemly to ridicule it. At times Altman evokes late Bergman's skepticism toward all forms of dramatic discourse, but in "Buffalo Bill," particularly, Altman has not devised an adequate substitute for the dramatic discourse. The result is that the grin of the Cheshire cat has frozen into a fashionable grimace of perpetual disenchantment….
What I find lacking in "Buffalo Bill" is any genuine affection for its subject….
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[Altman attempts in] his Nashville to evoke on screen what he perceives to be the dominant quality of American life today. It is one man's tragicomically exaggerated vision of contemporary American society, and by implication western civilization as a whole, that is the real subject of this film, the timeless universal to be conveyed through the particular vehicle of spatially defined Nashville. Altman's method in building and equipping such a vehicle is to be compared with that of character or the writer of comedy. Unlike the dramatic novelist or the tragedian, he is never at one with any of his characters, never at pains to pursue each's fate as he or she comes into being. Their dialogue is anything...
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Robert Altman's 3 Women is such a stimulating achievement in cinematic art that it makes one rethink the whole aesthetic of motion pictures…. There is something so utterly unusual about 3 Women that its like may never materialize again, even from Altman. It seems to be located at a fleeting intersection of two awarenesses—the artist's and society's. It is both a dream and a document, a set of facts and a cluster of myths. But the mixture of ingredients produces a very strange concoction, one difficult to describe in terms of the rhetoric of contemporary criticism….
In all of Altman's films, but most decisively in Brewster McCloud, Images, and now 3 Women, his...
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Doubling the number of featured players in Nashville from twenty-four to forty-eight while shrinking the time scale from three days to one, A Wedding offers an extension rather than an expansion of Robert Altman's behavioral repertory. Variations on the same dirty little secrets, social embarrassments, and isolating self-absorptions that illustrate his last ten movies are trotted out once again—articulated as gags or tragicomic mash notes, molded into actors' bits, arranged in complementary or contrasting clusters, orchestrated and choreographed into simultaneous or successive rhythmic patterns, and strategically timed and placed to coincide with unexpected plot or character reversals.
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Altman likes show-business motifs, which appear regularly in his films, or bits of activity related to shows, and this derives, at least partly, from being comfortable with his performers. Donald Sutherland's and Elliott Gould's behavior in M∗A∗S∗H is a show in itself—theatrical, mannered, and even artificial in its heightened, cool relaxation. And there's the spoof of John Schuck's "suicide," a play in itself, complete with music and a grand finale. Brewster McCloud takes place at the Houston Astrodome, an arena devoted not only to sports but to shows as well. (p. 19)
Altman's "show" relates to another branch of the arts, painting, which he constantly refers to when talking...
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Up to a point, at least, Robert Altman's celebration of the celebration of matrimony in A Wedding … is irresistibly and uncomplicatedly funny. Eavesdropping at precisely the right moment, his camera is invariably well placed to pull a plum out of the surrounding chaos of socially amplified intrigues, obsessions, eccentricities, gaffes, resentments and pretensions…. [The] wedding gradually becomes a looking-glass into which one peers, fascinated, at a minor key counterpart to the nine circles of Dante's inferno….
[One] realises, as the film progresses, that the 'naturalism' (comically heightened, of course) is gradually being abandoned for—in the phrase annexed by Jonathan Rosenbaum in...
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[The burden of A Wedding, Altman's] very black and very funny new movie is to make us laugh at our romantic, sentimental, pretentious absurdity. We are, in the Altman canon, certainly the oddest creatures on the face of the earth, and he looks at us with astonishment, as if surprised to discover that an animal so ill-equipped for living has managed to get by for so long. One of our chief drawbacks is the yawning abyss between what we think of ourselves and what we are, and it is into this abyss, with ungentlemanly relish, that Altman jumps with all his troops….
Altman believes in pushing his observations on film as close to lifelike experiences as the medium will stand without boring us to...
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In all his recent films, including A Wedding, Robert Altman has made the kind of satire that delivers a big, round-house right to the whole society. Only a director capable of great economy as a story-teller—Orson Welles is another—can do satire on this epic scale. Just as Welles was able in Citizen Kane to describe the entire course of a marriage in a few snippets of conversation at the breakfast table, so Altman can neatly create the personalities of a half dozen characters at a time. Both directors are masters of the vignette. When Altman's wedding party returns from the ceremony to the reception at the house, for instance, Altman just sends everyone off to the bathroom. As people cue up to use...
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In the past I have been up on Altman when everyone else was down, and down on Altman when everyone else was up. I have always found it strange that so somber and so pessimistic an artist has managed to be so productive in an industry dedicated mostly to the manufacture of cotton candy.
Part of the answer may be that he was regarded for a long time as a realist and an iconoclast…. No one seemed to notice the stylization and absurdism in [his] works. But when Altman went completely abstract in Brewster McCloud, Images, and Three Women, most reviewers found no outlet for their anti-establishment rhetoric and turned thumbs down on these violent ruptures from all realistic conventions. For...
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Robert Altman is like the little girl in the nursery rhyme who had a curl right in the middle of her forehead. When he is good, he is very, very good, but when he is bad—well, did you happen to catch "Quintet"?…
In what may be the swiftest rebound in cinematic history, Hollywood's most prolific film-maker has vaulted out of the metaphysical pits to create a wry, engaging, wonderfully perceptive romantic comedy. It is called "A Perfect Couple," and it is far and away Altman's most bracing, most satisfying movie since "Nashville."…
Integral to the movie's structure is the use of counterpoint to call our attention to contrasting but parallel elements in the principals' styles of...
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[A Perfect Couple] has the usual Altman assets: technical deftness, idiosyncrasy, unexpected subject. But the deftness rattles around in a vacuum, the idiosyncrasy—because unsupported in theme or dynamics—degenerates quickly into egotism, and the unexpected subject is so poorly developed that it quickly becomes sterile….
The story is too strained to support comment. The jokes include: trouble with a car's sun roof in a rainstorm; the woman's taking a swing with a poker at two struggling men and hitting the wrong one; and a silent Gorgeous Couple—a running gag intended as a comment on [Alex and Sheila]—who of course end up badly while the homely pair don't. Beauty is only skin-deep,...
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A Perfect Couple, which pursues the bitter-sweet progress of a love-affair based on the attraction of opposites, is [Altman's] most conventional entertainment to date, a mild comedy with lots of music and a happy ending….
Somehow, more sheer gusto, a Thirties breeziness, is needed to override our awareness of schematisation. [Paul Dooley and Marta Heflin, who play Alex and Sheila,] play well but without that old black-and-white magic that could have us swallow a dozen unlikelihoods. When, after ups-and-downs, Alex becomes a male groupie ('The people in this bus are my kind of people'), we know it can't last and suspect it would never have happened. He goes home, to discover his beloved...
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